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Advanced English Conversation Skills
by Arunee Wiriyachitra

The growing importance of English as a world lingua franca is difficult to deny. English is used in every sector in academia, industry, trade, etc. During the last two decades the world has been getting smaller, and people around the world have had more opportunity to interact with each other. Spoken interaction has played a major role in communication, and the most important type of spoken interaction is conversation.

Essentials of good conversation

Because of its importance, conversation is, therefore, part of any English language curriculum. Usually, language functions, forms, and vocabulary used in a variety of situations and contexts are taught in a conversation class. However, the ability to use language with a high degree of effectiveness (to employ advanced conversation skills) demands more than a knowledge of function, form, and vocabulary. To be skillful in conversation, learners should be taught how to be good conversationalists. In my opinion, a good conversationalist should (1) give effective feedback, (2) employ cooperative behaviour, and (3) understand and use accurate and appropriate verbal and nonverbal language.

Now let's discuss these features in detail.

1. Give effective feedback. Conversation is a one-to-one communication; it involves both give and take. Therefore, feedback is an essential element of conversation. The term feedback refers to a receiver's response as perceived by the sender. Thus, the sender can use feedback to check whether or not messages are being perceived accurately.

The receiver should give feedback to let the sender know that s/he is listening. This can make the sender feel good and confident and will encourage him/her to say more. Feedback can be given verbally and/or nonverbally. Some nonverbal responses are nodding one's head, natural eye contact, facial expression, and body posture. Supportive verbal comments such as "uh-huh," "oh really," "well," and "yes" indicate that the receiver is listening.

Feedback contributes to the conversation. Both statements and questions can be used. Questions can be used to request more information. Appropriate answers and polite argument can be used to give information and opinions. In order to make an effective contribution, however, one must be aware of the other's beliefs, attitudes, values, and culture.

A receiver can use feedback to check how close the perceived message is to the intended message. There are several ways to do this; all involve asking questions and paraphrasing. A question is a common way to get a message clarified. Paraphrasing is stating in one's own words what one heard the person saying. Several lead-in lines are helpful, e.g., "You believe that . . . ?," "You mean . . . ?," etc.

2. Employ cooperative behaviour. For an effective conversation, the communicators have to display cooperative behaviour. Grice (1975) has described four maxims or principles according to which cooperative behaviour is developed:

The maxim of quality. Try to make your contribution one that is true: (1) Do not say what you believe to be false. (2) Do not say anything for which you lack adequate evidence.

The maxim of quantity. Give the right amount of information: (1) Make your contribution as informative as is required. (2) Do not make your contribution more informative than is required.

The maxim of relation. Be relevant and timely.

The maxim of manner. Be clear: (1) Avoid obscurity of expression. (2) Avoid ambiguity. (3) Be brief. (4) Be orderly.

In an effective conversation, the receiver should be aware that if these maxims are not followed, what one hears should be interpreted as utterance meaning (meaning in relation to the speakers in the particular situation) and not sentence meaning (the literal meaning of an expression unrelated to the context). For example:

John : When is Anna's birthday?

Mary : Sometime in May.

By choosing not to be as informative as required in other words, by being vague Mary may be suggesting that she is not interested in Anna, and John should get the message that conversation about Anna should be ended.

3. Understand and use accurate and appropriate verbal and nonverbal language. In conversation, even though errors are tolerated, and may even pass unnoticed, accuracy is still needed. Accuracy, here, means accuracy in vocabulary and grammar and in pronouncing correctly.

Conversational language is spoken language, and has its own linguistic features. Thus, accuracy also means using an appropriate language style. Some of the important features of conversational language are these:

  • Most of the words used are simple and nontechnical, e.g., want instead of desire .
  • A great number of idioms are used, e.g., call off instead of cancel .
  • A high proportion of hesitations and fillers are used, e.g., well, uh .
  • A large number of loosely coordinated clauses and short minor sentences are used, e.g., "Yes, I must worry about you. I m your mother. I know you went out with that high school dropout. I don't want you to get involved with him. He's no good."
  • Contracted verb forms are often used, e.g., I'm for I am .

Verbal language also includes paralanguage. The way we use language can be even more important than our words as a source of information. A sigh, a monotone, a loud voice may serve as important cues in helping the individual decide how to interpret the information in a message. Pitch can be used to determine whether a particular utterance is a statement or a question, a serious comment or a sarcastic barb. Interjections, such as huh,really , and you know , stuttering, and stammering may also have an impact on the way an utterance is interpreted. Although there is no difference in the words used in come in and cooommme iiinnn , the meanings attached to these two messages are likely to be different. Thus, understanding and using accurate paralanguage is important in conversation.

To have effective conversation, it is not enough to understand the code and to be able to use it accurately to know the grammar of a language and its vocabulary. One also has to be sensitive to different levels of usage, the ways in which the particular situation will affect the choice of verbal and nonverbal language. Who the receiver is also affects our use of language. One should use different language when talking to a friend than when talking to a complete stranger or someone of higher status. Even when talking to a friend, a different situation or context can change the level of language use. For example, the ways of talking to a friend who is a high judge (1) at his house and (2) in court should be different.

In conversation, much of the message is often sent through nonverbal channels. Besides hearing messages, we often receive messages through our eyes. The use of nonverbal language can help the receiver understand the sender's feelings, moods, and attitudes. It has been estimated that in a communicative situation as much as 65% of the message is carried nonverbally. Therefore, in conversation, communicators should use appropriate nonverbal language, which includes messages communicated through physical appearance, body movements, eye contact, the use of space, touch, etc.

In conversation, nonverbal messages can in fact take the place of verbal messages; a nod means "yes. However, sometimes the verbal message conflicts with the nonverbal. In the case of a conflict between verbal and nonverbal communication, it is usually best to believe the nonverbal, since most people find it much harder to hide that.

Nonverbal language should be appropriate for the other person. Cultural and subcultural differences must be taken into consideration. A touch from a man to a woman may be interpreted differently in Asian than in Western culture. Also, the situation may determine the appropriateness of nonverbal language. A smiling face, for example, is not appropriate when talking about someone's suffering.

The goal: understanding

The considerations that have been described are those that a good English conversationalist should employ. Second-language learners should be taught all these skills in order to be able to conduct a conversation effectively that is, to really understand the message and its speaker and to be able to communicate the intended message in a way appropriate to the social context. Incorporating these skills will help to minimize misunderstandings in conversation and thus enhance understanding between individuals.


  • Grice, H. A. 1975. Logic and conversation. In Syntax and semantics, 3: Speech acts, ed. P. Cole and J. Morgan. New York: Academic Press.
  • Nolasco, R. and L. Arthur. 1987. Conversation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Shuter, R. 1984. Communicating concepts and skills. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
  • Taylor, A. et al. 1986. Communicating. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice- Hall.
  • Wright, A. 1987. How to communicate successfully. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Arunee Wiriyachitra is coordinator of the English language skills team for English majors at the Faculty of Humanities at Chiang Mai University in Thailand.


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